Updated: Apr 11, 2020
Yes, it is Alberta, Canada. Yes, we live here by choice, and don't get me wrong - Alberta is a great place to live. Having to cancel plans or worry if your car is going to make it to or from work each day is not fun. No one wants to be out there in this weather - not even our pets.
So, what do you do? You take them out and they are hoping on 3 legs within the first 2 minutes; ready to go back inside to seek shelter.
Now, normally this is the part where I would go on and on about the importance of daily exercise and the dangers of obesity and lecture you the same way I was lectured in school on these issues...
I'm not going to do that. I know that we all want what is best for our pets, so instead of telling you all of the things not to do, I'm going to give you the tools to be successful with indoor fun. We will cover 3 strategies and the different games you can play with your dog to help keep them entertained during the coldest of days.
Strategy 1: Feeding is Fun – Strengthen that Bond!
Whether you free feed, meal feed, use a special diet, cook for your pet etc. feeding time is a huge bonding opportunity for you and your pet. To understand the concept a little better, I'm going to segue into a bit of a back story here.
My first family dog was a German Shepherd that had been in training to work with an RCMP officer. When my parents got her I was just a kid, but since she had already been in training and bonded with another person, it was important that we transition her trust to her new family. We took her to a professional dog trainer and one of the biggest things that helped Tequila bond with my mom was this simple advice: Hand feed only.
For the first 2 weeks our new puppy only ate if she was eating out of someone's hand. It built trust and enforced a level of comfort that many dogs receive from engaging in 'social eating'. In fact, many dogs will not eat if they are completely alone, preferring to wait for their owners to be in the room. This is something they naturally prefer to do and acting in a way that supports their ingrained behavioural dynamics can only help to strengthen your relationship with your dog.
We also have all been known to use the word 'treat' to get our dogs attention. What most people don't realize is that the real treat for your dog is spending time with you. Instead of using treats, use your pets own kibble and make a game out of it. We all learn best from games, so help reinforce some basic training by having your pet sit, settle, touch, shake, stay, whatever. Since the outdoor run and play time has been limited, stimulating your pet mentally can make a huge difference - and you'll find your pet is more likely to listen to your commands in the future. After all, practice makes perfect.
Pro Tip: The real treat is you. Your love, your attention and your time are the most valuable thing you can offer. Training with regular kibble reinforces the value in you over the treat and leads to a more obedient dog who connects reward to you rather than an external stimulus (the 'treat').
Last year I participated in some continued education and learned a trick that I absolutely LOVE for feeding pets. The class was called Leash Off, Game On and was taught by a duo who founded Absolute Dogs. Long story slightly shorter, the entire course was about training dogs using 3-minute games and a portion of their daily food ration.
I realized I was making a mistake my entire life with my dogs and using their food and some self-awareness I could improve my relationship with my dog. The game is quite simple. I would toss one kibble away and let them run to go get it. My dog learned that I had the food and after eating the kibble she had just gone to chase would immediately turn her head back to me and I would use her name in a happy, rewarding tone.
Now, just hold on. You are thinking ‘My dog already knows their name’ and you’re right – but that isn’t what we are teaching them. Remember when you were a kid and your mom would use your middle name and you knew you were in trouble? You may not have known what it was that you did, but you walked over to her very cautiously after that with the most innocent eyes you could muster. That is what this game is about.
I am guilty of using my pets name in a negative tone. If she was running too far, I would holler out her name and ‘No! Stay off the road!’ Or even when she was chasing the new kitten it was ‘Maya, Stop!’. I never thought about those moments as being hard on my dog, all I was thinking was the panic and fear that she or someone else was going to get hurt.
Unfortunately, that can make a dog less likely to come when called, because they don’t know if it is a good thing or bad thing. Without a doubt, pets can feel anxiety and without even knowing it, I was sometimes causing her to feel that way.
To be completely honest, my dog has always had a pretty good recall, so I didn’t think I needed to bother with this game at first. I later decided to give it a try anyway – and I am so glad I did! The way she responds to her name from me is different than when she hears it from my dad. She is happier and I am not as panicked because I know with confidence that hearing me say her name is more important than the rabbit she wanted to chase moments ago. Her recall is faster, therefore making her safer and our relationship has become stronger than ever.